An Interview Of Rajah Banerjee: The Man Who Quit Oxford For Makaibari Tea
Although just a nickname, the title — Rajah — has stuck to the man who has taken Darjeeling tea to its exalted heights.
Rajah Banerjee at Makaibari Tea Estate
The first tea factory in the world was set up at Makaibari — literally meaning Field of Corn — after the corn fields were turned into a lush tea garden. In the centuries that have followed, four generations of the Banerjee family have led the tea estate and the factory to a glorious legacy. Swaraj Kumar Banerjee or Rajah Banerjee as he is known around the world, has been the frontrunner in taking organic Darjeeling tea to the world.
In an interaction with Vahdam Teas, Rajah Banerjee speaks about why Makaibari should be set aside in any uninformed context about ‘ethical tea’. “There are those who will just club the entire region together to point a finger at and that is deeply disrespectful,” he says. “I do not partake in any such conversation until there is a specific reference to Makaibari and that, is simply not possible.”
The entrance to Rajah Banerjee’s residence
Makaibari is the first tea factory in the world and although ownership of the factory is now shifting into the hands of an influential business family, matters are still run by the fourth generation of the owners, Rajah Banerjee. It was GC Banerjee who set up Makaibari in 1859 and while the entire nation saw much influence of the British Raj, Makaibari always stood out as the truly Indian tea brand and a signature Darjeeling tea.
At the estate, the people and Rajah Banerjee himself does not refer to tea as a commodity or a mere agricultural produce but as MMHH, or Magical Mystical Himalayan Herb. Since inception, Makaibari has had a deep emphasis in peaceful co-existence of nature and even today with almost 1,600 people living on the estate, its forests with its wild animals live peacefully and in harmony with the tea gardens and 7 villages.
“For us our tea factory is a living organism, born 150 years ago built entirely in wood, bamboo and cast iron. It has grown organically in the years in different stages becoming a sample of living industrial archaeology perfectly functioning also today, preserving with care its unique atmosphere and heritage character,” declares the fourth generation of Makaibari owner, Rajah Banerjee, on the company’s website.
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Rajah Banerjee at his office, describing MMHH
“Makaibari thrives on the mantra ‘Healthy soil is healthy mankind’. It is imperative for us to cater to the needs of the soil for that is what produces what we eat and makes us who we are and so if we wish to be better human beings we must strive to sustain a better soil,” he explains. Banerjee has spent better part of his life ensuring that the Makaibari estate and its teas retain the goodness in the soil that today, reflects in each and every living thing on the estate.
“The concept of fair trade is no longer fair,” he rues. “The first reference of it was in 1998 and I believe it is an extension of a Christian purview of seeing things. You look at someone’s act and decide this is good and this bad. What is good is then hailed as the work of God and the Creator and what is bad is the work of the Devil. On these lines, Fair Trade is believed to be fair as it caters to XYZ parameters decided and endorsed by the priests of Fair Trade faith. However, I can prove that adhering to these XYZ parameters alone does not guarantee a truly fair product.” Shaking his head vehemently, he adds, “Mainstream policing has caused the real objective behind Fair Trade to lose its charm.”
“Practicing sustainable living and ethical forms of farming is very different from obtaining a dozen certificates of endorsements. You will not understand, you need to get yourself into a tea garden and connect with the soil.”
Rolling tea estates
Very few tea lovers know that Makaibari is not exactly blessed with ideal tea growing conditions. The entire estate has not been utilized to grow tea, the best tea produce comes from the steep slopes of the mountain side which sees an excessive loss of topsoil, every single monsoon! The understanding of nature and its laws has played a vital role in the success of sustaining Makaibari tea. “Our good friend the forest has helped us a lot in overcoming the challenges of loose topsoil,” Mr Banerjee remarks. It is said that a visiting delegate from the Tea Board of India had once remarked, “My goodness! You guys grow tea on rocks!”
The forest has been helping to nurture the soil back to its health during the monsoon while a lot of trees have helped cling on to the soil and prevent excessive loss. Banerjee and his staff have also adeptly used other sustainable tools, like an advanced mulching system through a six-tier permaculture, to prevent the loss of topsoil to retain and replenish the quality of the soil.
“I do not believe that any tea can be unsellable. We do not need to resort to flavoring our teas for most part but we have recently launched some teas with certain value additions. The rain harvest can be quite challenging on our part as the climate works against us. It still is good tea and we are working on bringing out some exquisite blends that global tea lovers will relish.”
Rajah Banerjee with his horse outside his office at Makaibari Tea Estate
For decades, Rajah Banerjee has been frontrunner for Darjeeling teas, not just Makaibari teas to the world. For those who feel that he may want to take a few days off couldn’t be more incorrect. “I have been invited several times by the government of Sikkim to assist them with the Temi Tea Estate,” he shares. “Have you tasted their teas? It’s exquisite! You see, despite the poor management of resources and the lack of proper guidelines to help the estate nurture, with only nature to the rescue the estate has been producing some great quality teas and I am sure that with four years of no interference from anyone I will be able to produce a tea that will so much better than Darjeeling.”
It’s quite a shock to hear that and seeing the response he retorts, “Why is that hard to believe? Human tastebuds have only savoured what humans have discovered and shared. Being connected to the soil and having tasted the produce of Temi Tea Estate, I can confidently say that it has tremendous potential.”
“People who are connected with the soil are better human beings. I have the highest regard for the Lepcha tribe who have their roots deeply embedded in nature,” he says. The Lepcha tribe is originally from Sikkim and several have now settled in more modern settings in and around the state. The tribe believes that they were lovingly created out by Mother Nature and proudly call themselves Mutanchi Rongkup — Mother’s Loved Ones!
Tea pickers in Darjeeling
And what about Darjeeling teas, what is the fate of the region without its champion for decades? “What about it?, he asks. “People have been falling for cheap teas for ages, and that’s just in India. Those who do not savor the taste will continue not to. As for Darjeeling, nowhere else in the world will you get the natural climatic conditions of tropical, temperate and alpine in one region. Only 69 factories in the world can produce Darjeeling teas. And each has its distinct flavor. That is what should be talked about and relished.”
“I do not entertain people who wish to come in plaster their comments on tea and on Darjeeling without understanding the soil or the context of their comment. I wish to tell you that it is disrespectful,” he shares. “The soil has a soul and we have nurtured that soul. Do you know that it takes 12 years to truly understand a tea. How many take the time, the effort to learn? What is stopping you from learning?”
“Come see what we have at Makaibari, it is not just tea. We have 2 tigers, 3 panthers, hornbills among all other members of an entire forest and 3 rivers thriving on the estate.”
A picture of an article on Rajah Banerjee displayed in his office
Makaibari Estate was also the first where the residents of the villages opened their homes to visitors in the form of homestays to encourage people to live and experience an unadulterated tea experience. “Why don’t you go out there and talk to the people? The women. I strongly believe that the greatest benefit of a community comes from the empowerment of its women. I don’t mean the fancy entitlement of the cities. We have volunteer programmes to encourage travelers to participate in our lives. The people of Makaibari are increasingly self-sustaining and there is no need to damage the soil. We do not need a certificate to prove that.”
“Live with us, breathe the air, touch the soil, then you might fathom what the soul of Makaibari is all about. Come see the trees — which are poems that the earth writes to the sky.”